There was quite a coincidence in the Liverpool theatre world this month in 1985.
While Willie Russell was finishing his play Shirley Valentine about a bored Merseyside housewife who finds a new zest for life on a Greek holiday, Liverpool Playhouse were importing 30 tons of Southport sand to make their stage look like a beach in Greece!
But the Playhouse was not preparing to premiere Russell’s latest work – that would come a year later at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre.
The production demanding the sandy treatment at the Playhouse was the play Salonika, written by Louise Page. Our photo shows one stage technician getting into the holiday spirit on the impromptu beach while others are busy shoveling around him!
Salonika tells the story of 84-year-old Charlotte and her 63-year-old daughter Enid who journey to Greece to visit the grave of Charlotte’s husband Ben.
Ben died in the First World War, and Charlotte is now pursued by pensioner Leonard who hitch-hikes from England to declare his love for her. His arrival in Greece stirs up a hotbed of emotional tension.
First performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Salonika won the George Devine Award for the best original stage play in 1982.
The role of Shirley Valentine in Russell’s monologue went to Noreen Kershaw when the play opened at the Everyman Theatre – but the character was made famous by Pauline Collins.
She portrayed Shirley in the West End production as well as New York’s Broadway, and later starred in the 1989 film.
The play’s plot touched universal fears and worries. It told the story of housewife Shirley, seriously stuck in a rut, who keeps talking to her kitchen wall.
When her friend Jane wins a holiday to Greece and asks her to come along. Shirley throws caution to the wind and agrees.
After speaking to a rock on a Greek beach instead of her wall, Shirley finds holiday romance with smooth-talking restaurateur Costas. But she really falls in love with the lifestyle and decides to stay.
The brief interlude with Costas quickly fades as Shirley settles into the Mediterranean tempo of life. The final scene sees her bemused husband Joe arriving on a Greek beach, suitcase in hand.
After portraying Shirley on the West End, Collins crossed the Atlantic with the production to Broadway. Ellen Burstyn replaced her later in the run.
Brookside actress Pauline Daniels played Shirley in a 1991 stage version and Meera Syal was cast in the role for the 2010 West End revival.
The original production won a rich haul of awards, including the 1988 Laurence Olivier Awards for Best New Comedy and Best Actress.
The 1989 film, directed by Lewis Gilbert, again featured Collins as Shirley with Bernard Hill playing her husband Joe. Tom Conti was Costas. Liverpool actress Alison Steadman portrayed Shirley’s flamboyant friend Jane.
Joanna Lumley played Shirley’s former school enemy Marjorie Majors – who everyone believed led a jet-set lifestyle as a successful air hostess.
When Marjorie confesses that she is really a high class prostitute and that she always admired Shirley’s rebellious streak, Shirley’s resolve to go abroad is strengthened no end.
The film came in for some criticism for making real characters out of the people Shirley only talked about on stage. One critic called it: ‘A realistic drama of appalling banality.’
But the most part it was well received. Variety described Collins’ performance as ‘irresistible’ and the Washington Post called it ‘an uncommonly warm relaxed little movie.’
Collins just missed out on was the Oscar for Best Actress, but won a thoroughly deserved BAFTA award.